Microsoft learns to ask before answering

The computer giant is to speak the language of its clients and stop imposing 'solutions', writes Keith Rodgers in San Francisco
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The Independent Online

Across business, there is an assumption that IT salespeople will push their technology as a "solution" without necessarily taking the time to understand what the underlying business need really is.

Now, a small group within Microsoft in the US is quietly working on a project, codenamed Motion, which in principle at least represents a significant shift in its approach to larger organisations.

Bill Gates' company has been taking several steps back from technology deployment to look at its customers' business priorities - helping to analyse proposed projects and assess the risks, benefits and potential ways forward.

Early projects have included work to reconcile duplicated functions following mergers and acquisitions, as well as to help customers make decisions about outsourcing. For organisations that expect nothing more than a hard sell - "The answer is Microsoft SQL Server, now what's the question?" - this will all come as something of a pleasant surprise.

Already in its third incarnation, the Microsoft methodology may not be radical in its own right, but it does provide a relatively straightforward framework to help organisations decide whether they're going to be creating shareholder value or simply creating a headache.

Built on four two-week-long phases, it begins by mapping out the business, looking at the different projects on the corporate agenda and selecting ones with the highest impact. It then collects the views of the business - using measures such as organisational charts and IT architecture diagrams - to provide context for the project.

Having mapped people, processes and technologies on top and pulled in attributes such as service-level expectations, the final stage is to identify the nature of the problem, weigh up the costs, risks and benefits of making a change, and recommend next steps.

It may be, of course, that SQL Server still features in that recommendation - it's just that there's an audit trail of eight weeks' work behind it.

As well as simplifying the methodology, its latest iteration includes new techniques for problem resolution, such as "Why can't we...?" analysis. As Ric Merrifield, motion strategy director at Microsoft, points out, people tend to make basic assumptions about what's core to their business - and the occasional irreverent challenge can sometimes throw forward significant conclusions.

Microsoft is far from alone among IT vendors in trying to bridge the gap between business need and technology, but the project serves an important purpose.

According to Mr Merrifield, one of the aims of the project is to demonstrate to Microsoft's major clients that not only can it have serious conversations about business value, but that it has experience in helping solve business issues.

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